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Organizing the Society
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3. Organizing the Society

During the late fifteenth and the early sixteenth century, as Bristol’s economy ceased to be based on trade in wine and woolens with western France and came to depend on much riskier dealings in high-priced and exotic imports from southern Europe, a close community of wholesale merchants, specializing in this southern trade, differentiated itself from the larger body of tradesmen and craftsmen in the city. So far, however, we have treated this development as though it were the natural product of an evolution in which environmental changes produce new forms of social organization to meet altered requirements for survival. But that kind of determinism neglects the way human agency drives such historical processes. In this chapter we shall begin correcting this shortcoming.

In the conventions of sociology and anthropology, social organization has commonly been considered the equivalent of social structure—simply another way of speaking about the “arrangement in which the elements of social life are linked together.”[1] According to the standard definition, “ ‘social organization’ refers…to the observed regularities in the behavior of people that are due to…social conditions…rather than to their physiological or psychological characteristics as individuals.”[2] But, as Raymond Firth has stressed, “the more one thinks of a society in abstract terms, as of group relations or of ideal patterns, the more necessary it is to think separately of social organization in terms of concrete activity.” Social organization understood in this way is “a social process, the arrangement of action in sequence in conformity with selected social ends.” It may “imply a putting together of diverse elements into common relation” according either to “existing structural principles” or to newly adopted procedures; but it also leaves room for the possibility of conscious change in society as choices, backed by the power to impose them, are made about the primacy of some elements over others and the best arrangement of the parts. If social structure expresses “the element of continuity in social life,” setting limitations on the making of decisions, social organization exploits the resulting potential for variations and alterations in social behavior. Hence social organization, understood as “the systematic ordering of social relations by acts of choice and decision,” necessarily enters the realm of politics. It depends on formal or informal mechanisms “to take decisions on behalf of the totality.” It also enables the challenging of those decisions according to conflicting principles and varied interests. In this way it raises issues regarding the exercise of authority and the distribution of power.[3]

One of the principal means of converting social structure into social organization involves the self-conscious creation of what sociologists and political scientists sometimes call “formal organizations.” These differ from the patterned social arrangements of which we have just been speaking: they are distinct institutions deliberately established for expressing the interests and goals of specific groups within the social order.[4] Nevertheless, by providing ways of shaping the social world in which their members find themselves, they can play a major role in social organization more broadly construed. The very establishment of a formal organization tends to fix the boundaries of social relations, putting up barriers where previously there were only signposts, and thereby hardening the lines of social and political conflict. Under these conditions formal organizations cease to be responses to existing social arrangements—ways of coping within an existing order—and become features of social organization itself—ways of remaking that order on a new model.

The evolution of a distinct fellowship of merchants in Bristol during the years following 1453 represents just such a reorganization of society. Rather than being a mere reflexive adaptation to a profound change, the emergence of this separate commercial group was very much the product of the conscious exercise of authority and the willful extension of power that together recast the economic and social environment in which Bristolians found themselves in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Changes in structure promote changes in organization; changes in organization encourage changes in structure. The turning point came in 1552, when the successful establishment of a separate Society of Merchant Venturers transformed what had previously been no more than a convenient set of commercial connections among the leading members of Bristol’s commercial elite into a formal organization for the protection of their interests and advancement of their power. The troubling economic conditions of the later fifteenth and the early sixteenth century did not by themselves dictate this solution. They merely presented a dilemma. Domination of the trading community by a narrow, self-designated group of privileged traders was not the only method available for coping with that dilemma. Since customary commercial practices and the ethos of medieval urban life also emphasized the mutual support owed fellow townsmen in times of economic distress,[5] Bristol’s traditions could have led to the sharing of its ancient commercial franchises by the commonalty of freemen rather than the emergence of the leading merchants in a separate gild. We need to understand how and why the second choice came to prevail.

The Master, Wardens, and Commonalty of Merchant Venturers of the City of Bristol—which is the official corporate name of the Society—was the focus of much of the city’s political, social, and economic life during the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. As a commercial gild, it stood at the heart of the city’s mercantile community, regulating trade and defending the interests of Bristol’s merchants at home and abroad. Of equal importance was its social role, for in helping to organize the activities of the city’s leading overseas traders it gave coherence to this group as a local elite. In consequence, the Merchant Venturers formed a distinct element within the city’s social order, one whose influence was discernible in almost every facet of urban life. This is especially true of politics. Whether in conflict with other groups or divided among themselves, the Society’s membership is usually found in the thick of controversy over the uses of power and the direction of policy within the city. Most of these disputes and conflicts were initiated by the Merchant Venturers in advancing their own vision of the urban social order.

But the Society did not spring full-grown into Bristol’s history in 1552. During the century preceding the Society’s first royal charter, Bristol’s merchants participated in a series of experiments in commercial organization designed to help them cope with the new conditions under which they traded after the loss of Bordeaux. The earliest attempt to establish an organization of overseas merchants dates from the period immediately following England’s ouster from Gascony. This organization had very limited purposes. In 1467, when commerce with France was still deep in the doldrums, a city ordinance created a society of merchants to assure that the city’s diminished trade would benefit its freemen, not outsiders. The legislation covered iron, olive oil, wax, and “meteoyle,” probably tallow, the first three of which were major Iberian imports. To control the sale of these wares, the ordinance instructed the Common Council to elect from its own membership each year a master, two wardens, and two beadles to serve a newly created merchant fellowship. This group was granted the use of a chapel and a room in Spicer’s Hall, to which all the merchants of the city periodically were to be summoned to set the prices at which the four commodities might be sold to strangers. Although there was no specific provision for this “fellowship” to make regulations for its own governance, in drawing a distinction between its members and the rest of the city’s “merchants” the ordinance appears to have created a separate society of “adventurers,” defined as those who traded in bulk beyond the seas. The larger body of merchants in this period would have been primarily retail shopkeepers, not large-scale or wholesale traders.[6]

No evidence has survived of the activities of the body brought into being by this ordinance. It may well have dissolved within a decade of its foundation, when economic conditions improved sufficiently to relieve pressure on the sale of the four commodities.[7] But following Bristol’s receipt of a new royal charter in 1499, a second attempt was made by the city Corporation to organize a company of merchants. Very probably this effort was the work of the newly created bench of aldermen, which was made up of the wealthiest citizens. In 1499 it was granted extraordinary powers to shape governmental policy and to lead the Common Council. The new company, like the society of 1467, was also organized to attend to the Iberian trades.[8] Its stated purpose was to solve an ancient urban problem, the “colourable and crafty dealyng” by certain burgesses who habitually “colored” the goods of strangers; that is to say, bought and sold them as their own, contrary to the burgess oath, to the profit of the outsiders.[9] To cope with this old problem, the Corporation established a merchant fellowship, separate and distinct from every other organized group of tradesmen and craftsmen in the city. Only “merchant adventurers,” as the ordinance called them, were permitted to join. The main aim seems to have been the exclusion of all clothiers—men trained in the crafts—from participation in overseas trade. Members of the newly founded company were forbidden to act as agents for nonmembers, whether stranger or citizen, either in shipping goods from Bristol or in receiving them abroad for return to Bristol. If any nonmember freighted a vessel for a voyage to or from the port, no member was to join with him or lade his goods aboard the same vessel.[10]

By implication, these and similar regulations defined the membership of the new company. They insured that members would give over trading as agents for nonmembers—neighbors or foreigners—and that those unable to sustain their businesses without this source of income would cease trading abroad altogether. A rough line was drawn, therefore, between overseas merchants and other tradesmen. Artisans were forbidden membership outright, but there was no prohibition of retailing on the part of the membership, and many merchants undoubtedly continued to sell small quantities of their stock for immediate consumption. Nevertheless, the distinction between the major “merchant adventurers,” who depended primarily on foreign commerce, and lesser figures, who only occasionally ventured abroad for foreign wares, had emerged more clearly than in 1467.[11]

Limiting the competition facing the merchant adventurers was only one intended effect of the new fellowship. Equally important was the way it sought to enhance their social cohesion. For example, all members were expected to trade to and from foreign parts together, under company rule, rather than individually. No merchant of Bristol was to lade any ship, either at home or abroad, with any goods without the advice, assent, and license of the master and wardens or the approval of the majority of the membership. Company members were to share the same vessels for all their overseas traffic.[12] Moreover, the fellowship itself was to settle all controversies among its members. Twice every week, if necessary, the master and wardens were to call together the entire membership to discuss not only their “feats of marchaundises,” but also

to here complayntes and sett direccions accordyng to reason and good conscience bitweene partees of the same company beyng atte variaunce or debate, or to send the said parties with their causes as they have founde theym certifyed unto the maire of Bristowe…further to be ordred or directed as the case rightfully shall requyre.[13]

To further prevent members from going to law against each other, every merchant adventurer was forbidden to “vex trouble or sue” any of his brethren in any court before first bringing “the matier hangyng in variaunce” to the master and wardens. By relying on the common interests of each disputant in maintaining his reputation and goodwill with his fellow merchants, and by using the services of friends and partners to resolve disagreements quickly, the ordinance sought to preserve the internal harmony among the membership that it presupposed.[14]

Had this company of merchants accomplished all it set out to do, it would have given Bristol’s overseas traders a cohesive communal structure and a privileged organization on which to build their personal and business relationships. Unfortunately, no records of its activities have survived and nothing is known about how it met the economic crises that struck Bristol soon after its creation. It may well have continued to operate in some form throughout the first half of the sixteenth century. The mariners’ chapel, dedicated to St. Clement of Alexandria and built in 1493, with which the fellowship of 1500 was associated, survived intact until the dissolution of the chantries in 1549. The chapel’s property eventually became the site of the Merchant Venturers’ almshouse, established to perform the charitable functions associated with the original foundation. The ordinances of 1500 also passed into the hands of the Merchant Venturers as its earliest surviving documentary record. But by 1508 the city government’s powers to make ordinances regarding “the colouring of strangers goods” were already under challenge, and it may be that the merchant fellowship ceased to enforce its wide-ranging regulations on this subject soon thereafter. There is certainly no reference to it in the Common Council acts of 1520 and 1527 regarding “strangers goods.”[15] Perhaps the maintenance of the chapel provided sufficient institutional basis to keep the fellowship together.

In addition to experimenting with local companies during the century preceding 1552, Bristol’s merchants participated in the commercial organizations established during Henry VIII’s reign by English traders in Spain: the Brotherhood of St. George, founded at San Lucar de Barrameda in 1517 by letters patent from the duke of Medina Sidonia, and the Andalusia Company, founded by Henry VIII’s letters patent in 1530.[16] However, neither body possessed a constitution well suited to the needs and interests of the Bristol merchants. The privileges of the Brotherhood of St. George, for example, amounted to little more than the right to build a church at San Lucar and to elect a consul with authority to hear and decide civil and criminal cases, especially those arising from debts between Englishman and Englishman or Englishman and Spaniard.[17] Even the much more elaborately organized Andalusia Company was not ideally suited to the Bristolians, since its jurisdiction remained confined to traders in southern Spain, with no permanent organization in England itself, and its leadership was dominated by Londoners, whose interests were not always the same as those of provincial merchants. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Company ceased effective existence by the end of Henry VIII’s reign. All that was left of a once quite important organization was the consul of the English nation, who could hardly be effective without a united community behind him.[18]

Bristol’s experiments with various forms of company organization during the century preceding 1552 demonstrate the desire of many of its overseas merchants for some kind of common institution within which to conduct their individual commercial activities. What they sought was not a joint-stock company that would carry on business as a single firm, but a corporate status through which commerce might be regulated, competition limited, and exclusive trading rights enjoyed. The benefits from such an organization would have been large under any economic conditions, but they were a particular boon in times of economic distress, since membership in a company would assist merchants in securing credit and pooling resources under tight financial conditions, in establishing common policies to address mutual problems, and in seeking royal privileges and governmental protection to cope with crises. Finally, by limiting participation in foreign commerce, a company could insure its members a larger share of the reduced profits. Hence the incentives for creating a formal organization of merchants multiplied when trade was in decline, as was the case in the years immediately preceding Edward VI’s grant of letters patent in 1552.

We already know that the first half of the sixteenth century was one of the worst periods in Bristol’s commercial history, with trade receding on nearly every front. In the early 1550s, this general malaise combined with two more immediate crises that deepened the city’s economic troubles. The first and more significant of these crises concerned the state of the Spanish market, already crucial to Bristol’s prosperity. Just at the beginning of the 1550s Spain entered a period of serious economic difficulty, as commerce to and from her American colonies fell victim in 1549 or 1550 to what Pierre Chaunu has called a “grande récession intercyclique” that began with a rapid decline and lasted for the remainder of the decade. As Chaunu describes it, this recession resulted from the extraordinary conditions under which trans-Atlantic commerce proceeded in the sixteenth century, conditions affected by the vast distances that had to be covered and the consequent high costs of transportation.[19]

In the early period of Spanish colonial enterprise, times of expansion such as occurred in the years preceding 1550 generally encouraged the export of such high-priced wares as English cloth, since these made the most efficient and profitable use of the available shipping. As a result, during expansions stocks of relatively cheap and bulky goods built up in Spain, while shipping accumulated in American waters waiting for lucrative cargoes to bring home. Eventually, however, serious scarcities of shipping developed in the Iberian ports, and Spanish merchants, already anxious to recover at least some of their investment from abroad, brought home their vessels, often with inadequate cargoes, to cope with the growing inventories of less profitable wares in their storehouses. This flood of returning ships then caused the prices of American commodities to collapse, with a consequent loss of profits, setting off a recession, first among Spain’s own merchants and later among foreigners like the Bristolians, whose prosperity depended on the buoyancy of the Iberian markets. The recession in Spain during the 1550s was exactly of this type. With increased shipping available in Spain in 1549, freight charges dropped, and it became profitable to reduce the heavy inventories of cheaper and bulkier goods that had been growing in Andalusia during the expansion of the 1540s. Demand declined for the wares that the English and other non-Spaniards usually sold in Spain. In addition, foreign shipping, which had been attracted to Spain by inflated freight charges, was no longer required in the same quantities as before. Hence foreigners engaged in colonial commerce—such as the Bristolians based in Seville, San Lucar, and Cádiz, who operated in the American market by license—felt the effects of the recession before most other merchants and tradesmen.[20]

Within a short time the recession touched nearly everyone trading in Spain, whether or not they were directly dependent on colonial commerce. By the mid-sixteenth century, the American trade had become systematically integrated into the Spanish, and particularly the Andalusian, economy, causing Spanish prices to fluctuate with changes in this traffic. As the flood of ships returning in the early 1550s created an incentive to export, old stocks were cleared out. By 1552 the prices of domestic Spanish commodities began a steep rise. In Spain at large, prices increased by nearly 3 percent between 1551 and 1552, while in the Guadalquivir valley, where the Bristolians did the majority of their business, the rise was more on the order of 12 percent.[21] The prices Bristolians paid increased especially for certain key trading items that they regularly bought in Spain. Between 1551 and 1552, olive oil rose by 8.5 percent, sugar by 10.5 percent, and pepper by more than 22 percent, while wine, which had been relatively cheap throughout the 1540s, jumped by almost 43 percent, to a new plateau at which it would remain throughout the 1550s.[22] These facts meant that in 1552 Bristolians and other foreigners frequenting Spanish ports were faced with inflated prices both on the goods they imported from Spain and on the victuals and other goods they needed to fit out their ships in Spanish harbors. Although it is possible that their own goods also rose in price during this year, we have already learned that they earned very small profits, if any, from sales of these exports. Moreover, the general condition of the Spanish economy suggests that any increase in the price of English wares in Spain would have compensated only partially for their extra outlays.[23]

All in all, the merchants of Bristol were confronted by extremely worrisome circumstances in Spain. By 1552 the more experienced among them would have known that they were in the midst of an extremely unstable and dangerous season. They were bound to have felt anxiety about their long-term prospects and the correct commercial strategy to follow. These fears would only have been compounded by the troubles into which the English economy itself descended in the early 1550s as a result of the chaotic state of monetary policy. From 1542 to 1551, English coinage had undergone a series of debasements that doubled or more than doubled the amount of currency in circulation. This policy undoubtedly contributed in some degree to the inflation and falling exchange rates that England experienced in the 1540s and early 1550s, though recent scholarship has shown that the correlations among the value of English coin, domestic prices, and foreign exchange rates are very rough. This same debasement of the currency also seems to have promoted the expansion of English cloth exports in this period, but in a significant way only during 1549–1551. The sharp rise in cloth exports from Bristol in this two-year period supports this conclusion. In April 1551, however, Edward VI’s council began a policy of “calling down” or deflating the currency. This course was followed very haphazardly for almost a year until, in March 1552, the metal content of the coinage was once again restored to its pre-debasement level. The effect of this new policy was to reduce by half the existing circulating medium, thereby severely tightening credit.[24]

The initial effect of the announced calling-down of the currency in April 1551 was just the reverse of what was intended, which was to cool the overheated economy and consequently lower domestic prices. But prices rose rather than fell. The currency exchanges appeared in disarray and were at most only intermittently in operation. The main cause was that the government proceeded with the revaluation using a series of half-measures, which themselves were undermined by confusions and missteps. For example, it announced in April 1551 that in four months English currency would be worth 25 percent less than at present, but in the interval it issued the most debased currency of the period. The English appropriately began to hoard goods, to settle their outstanding debts in the newly debased coin, and to buy whatever was available on the open market. At the same time, foreigners ceased or nearly ceased all exchange transactions until the dust settled. Matters were only made worse when announcement of a further 25 percent revaluation was made in August and new coins were issued twice before the following March. Since no one could be certain what course events would take, the adverse effects of this initial calling-down of the currency in the spring and summer of 1551 lingered well into 1552.[25]

As might be expected, English cloth exports dropped dramatically in 1552. But the depression was probably felt more severely in London, where trade was already tied more closely to the exchange markets, than in the outports, where local merchants might have been able to profit from London’s difficulties.[26] In Bristol, however, disarray in the Spanish economy almost certainly wiped away any such short-term advantage.[27] Whatever the immediate effect of the recoinage on Bristol’s trade, its merchants must have become extremely wary of conditions, unwilling perhaps to forego the profits that might be won during this unsettled period, yet fearful of committing their wealth to new business while prices, currency values, and exchange rates fluctuated so wildly. Their instincts would have warned them to be cautious and draw in their investments, but they must also have found it necessary to continue to trade at or near their usual levels just to stay even with inflation. In such times, the hope of security often supplants the desire for profits as the primary economic goal.

The crisis of the Hispano-American trade and the great debasement and recoinage set the background for the Bristol merchants’ petition to the Crown for a chartered company. Events in another quarter gave added urgency to the situation and made such an effort all the more essential. The dissolution of the chantries had destroyed St. Clement’s Chapel, the last vestige of their common efforts. In December 1550, moreover, the building and its lands had been ceded to Sir Ralph Sadler and Laurence Winnington, who quickly made a bargain with the city government for its use, thereby eliminating the direct control over the property previously exercised by the merchants.[28] Whatever remnants of commercial organization had survived in Bristol into the mid-sixteenth century were no more. For those merchants who looked to an institutionalized fellowship among themselves to limit competition and provide mutual aid and protection, a new company was now required.

The belief in the need to keep the craft of merchants separate from all others emerged, or reemerged, as a theme of Bristol’s life in the mid-1540s. Roger Edgeworth, the conservative city preacher, speaking at the end of Henry VIII’s reign, expanded on the principle that each man should remain within the vocation to which he had been called, exhorting his congregation

to medle not to muche with other mens occupations that you cannot skyll on, leaste whyle ye be so curious in other mens matters not perteininge to your lerning you decaye as well in your owne occupation, as in the other, so fallinge to penurye, extreme pouertye, and very beggery. For when a tayler forsakyng his owne occupation wyll be a marchant venterer, or a shomaker to become a groser, God sende him well to proue.[29]

The moral principle was hardly new—Plato had articulated it in his Republic—but the definition of what constituted a proper occupation is of some significance. Edgeworth is concerned with protecting crafts or arts with trading functions—merchants and grocers—from encroachment by those engaged in manufacturing. As we already know, “marchant venterer” was no ancient craft in the 1540s.[30]

But it was only in 1552 that this spirit was transformed into a plan to acquire a royal charter for the creation of a new company of merchants in Bristol. The principal movers were Edward Pryn, Thomas Hickes, and Robert Butler, all prominent Iberian merchants who called themselves “marchant Venterers” and who described their businesses “as putting themselves their factors servants goods and marchandice in perill uppon the Sea.”[31] To justify their request for letters patent, these men submitted a “lamentable petition” which, as is common with such documents, complained bitterly of a severe decay of trade. Bristol’s principal problem, according to the petitioners, was

that divers Artificers and men of manuell arte inhabitinge the saide Citty haveinge alsoe occupacions to get theire liveinge (whoe were never apprentice or brought upp to or in the recourse or trade of the arte of marchants…nor haveinge anie good knowledge in the same Arte) Doe commonly exercise use and occupie the saide recourse or trade of marchandize to and from the partes beyond the seas.[32]

As in 1500, the merchants desired to remove artificers from overseas trade and thereby convert the art of merchandise into a separate craft, although this time the complaints focused on the tradesmen’s lack of training and the consequent harm to the commonweal it caused, instead of their illicit dealings on behalf of strangers. Ignorant and untrained handicraftsmen who engaged in overseas trade, it was asserted, ordinarily relied for their business on foreign shipping, on board which English goods were secretly conveyed away to the defrauding of the royal Customs and the detriment “of the Navye and marriners and the porte of the saide Citty…and chiefly of the said marchants.”[33]

Most of Edward VI’s charter is devoted to incorporating the Society of Merchant Venturers as a legal entity. Unlike the merchant fellowship of 1500, this company was not merely authorized to elect its own officers and make its own ordinances, as any officially sanctioned city gild might do, but to have a common seal and to be “capeable and fitt in ye lawe” to act as a corporation in administering property and conducting its collective business in “perpetual succession.”[34] Nevertheless, it was not entirely independent of the city government, since each year its master and wardens were required to take a corporal oath before the mayor and aldermen, just as the officers of other, lesser gilds did. In addition, the jurisdiction of its ordinances was limited only to its own membership and to the “Misterie or Arte” of the merchant adventurers. As we shall see, this limitation created a loophole through which passed much of the city’s politics for the next century or more.[35]

Since the newly formed Society’s power to regulate trade was restricted, what gave it its life were the rights and rules governing membership. “[N]oe Artificer of the Citty,” the charter said,

shall exercise the recourse of marchandize into the kingdome or dominions of the parties beyond the seas unlesse he shalbee admitted into the said Societie and State [of Merchant Venturer] by the…Maister and wardens, Neither that any other but onelie those who have bine, or hereafter shalbee apprentice to ye saide Misterie or Arte of Marchaunts…or have used the same Misterie by the space of seauen yeeres.[36]

On its face, this amounted to a grant of monopoly in overseas trade to the Society’s membership, although it was not clear whether they could enforce it with their own ordinances. Moreover, it is not entirely certain who exactly were to be the beneficiaries of the grant, since the patent provides no list of members and does not define what was meant by merchant venturer. The exclusion of artificers barred those trained as craftsmen unless they had been expressly admitted to the Society. Were the members also to be “mere merchants,” as contemporary usage had it, who would devote their businesses entirely to wholesale dealings, eschewing even occasional retail transactions? We do not know. In the absence of company ordinances, all we can say for certain is that merchant venturers devoted themselves primarily to “adventuring” or risk-taking in overseas trade.[37]

Nevertheless, the question of membership stirred great controversy from the moment the Society was born. If only those who had been admitted to its fellowship indeed could legally trade beyond the seas, it was perhaps inevitable that those excluded would cry out against the loss. Fortunately, one document suggests some of the contested points. Among the papers kept with John Smythe’s ledger for 1538–1550 is a list of “such as be marchauntes and hath the sporonge of marchauntes,” which we have already examined for other purposes.[38] “Sporonge” here means “purse” or “credit.” These individuals, the author urges, were “not to be denied to be of the mystery.” This document apparently was written either just before or just after the founding of the Society, probably in opposition to the denial of admission to some of those mentioned. It is perhaps related to the “matter at variaunce” in February 1552 between Smythe and Thomas Chester, mayor of Bristol when the Society was founded, who was one of the most ardent harrowers of retailers later in his life.[39] As we know, the list gives the names of one hundred and twenty-seven individuals, considerably more than appear in most later lists of Merchant Venturers. Twenty of them were grocers, drapers, mercers, vintners, and haberdashers (Table 11). These occupations typically were retail trades dealing in relatively high-priced goods. Over time, of course, the more successful of these men may have given over their retailing to specialize in wholesale trade. In effect, they would have become “mere merchants,” who rarely if ever had to indulge in retail sales to reduce unwanted inventory or turn a quick profit. Hence their presence in the list, as summarized in Table 11, need not be a sign that the Society remained open to Bristolians who still operated primarily as shopkeepers. But the same cannot be said of the bakers, skinners, tailors, pewterers, and others who appear in Table 11 in the miscellaneous category. Nearly all of these sixteen men were known to have been practicing their craft during the middle years of Henry VIII’s reign and none appears to have become sufficiently wealthy in his subsequent career to have entirely abandoned this craft work.[40] These men, along with a few of the retailers, probably were marginal overseas traders who only occasionally ventured their capital or their goods in foreign markets.

11. John Smythe’s List of “Such as be
Marchauntes and Hath the Sporonge
of Marchauntes I Thinck Not to be Denyed
to be of the Mystery,” circa 1550
Occupation No. % of
Known Men
Source: Jean Vanes, ed., The Ledger of John Smythe, 1538–1550 (Bristol Record Society 28, 1974), pp. 315–17.
Merchants 52 59.09
Other large-scale dealers[a]
   Grocer 7 7.96
   Draper 7 7.96
   Mercer 3 3.41
   Haberdasher 1 1.14
   Vintner 2 2.27
     Total 20 22.73 [b]
   Scrivener 1 1.14
   Bookbinder 1 1.14
   Baker 3 3.41
   Brewer 1 1.14
   Ropemaker 1 1.14
   Tailor 2 2.27
   Tucker (clothier) 1 1.14
   Pewterer 2 2.27
   Skinner 2 2.27
   Saddler 1 1.14
   Soapmaker 1 1.14
    Total 16 18.18 [b]
       Total known 88 100.00
       Total unknown 39
      Total 127

We can get some measure of the significance of this matter by taking the tailors as an example. As an occupational group, they were primarily craftsmen, who worked to order and who were usually supplied the necessary fabric by their customers. But many were also retail shopkeepers who kept their own supplies of cloth and reserved to themselves the right to sell it by wholesale when they were overstocked.[41] The more adventuresome probably also kept supplies of linen, silk, velvet, lace, and ribbons, which were usually foreign wares. There was a temptation, then, for tailors to seek their own sources for these accessories to their craft, and it seems likely that the two tailors who appear in the list did so on a sufficiently regular basis to warrant their inclusion. Similar stories can be told for almost all the other handicrafts represented in the list. Hence even if all the merchants, grocers, drapers, mercers, haberdashers, and vintners in Table 11 dealt exclusively by wholesale—an unlikely prospect—the author of the list apparently contemplated the inclusion of some craftsmen in the membership of the new Society. This viewpoint apparently won the day in 1552. According to Bristol’s tuckers, Edward VI’s charter did not exclude all shopkeepers and artisans from participation. It failed, they said, “to make the marchants and [sic] Crafte.”[42]

Although the subsequent history of the Bristol Merchant Venturers was by no means smooth, the royal letters patent of 1552 created a local organization that has survived as a corporate body to the present day. As it appeared in the early seventeenth century, it had a relatively large establishment of officers, including a master, two wardens, a treasurer, a clerk, and a beadle, as well as a board of twelve assistants. In addition, there was the Hall, made up of all the members, which met periodically through the year to elect the principal officials of the Society, approve or amend the Society’s bylaws, and carry out a number of other important duties.[43] Separately and together these elements performed a multiplicity of functions that were vital both to the commercial life of the city and to the welfare of the members themselves.

One major area of corporate activity was the maintenance of shipping. By the early seventeenth century, for example, many of the responsibilities for maintenance of Bristol’s port facilities previously borne by the city government had fallen to the Society, whose officers collected keyage, craneage, plankage, and wharfage to pay for them. As a result, the Hall regularly took account of the competency of pilots and port officials, the care of harbor facilities, and related matters.[44] In addition, the protection of ships on the high seas was an important issue, especially in wartime or when pirates were marauding in the Bristol Channel or in nearby English waters. Consequently, the Hall gave considerable attention to this subject, often in response to the Crown’s demands for money to mount naval expeditions.[45] The Society’s charitable activities—which by the early seventeenth century included not only the maintenance of an almshouse for aged seamen but also a schoolmaster for poor mariners’ children—were also a significant area of collective concern.[46]

Although these areas, with their demands for collective decisions and permanent commitments, helped to build a spirit of community among the Merchant Venturers, they were not the center of the Society’s corporate life. Bristol’s great overseas merchants depended to a considerable degree on national economic policy for their privileges and wealth. They were of necessity engaged in the affairs of the kingdom at large, and one of the main functions of their Society was to serve as their political agent with the state. As Patrick McGrath has put it, the Society was in some measure an economic “pressure group” for its members.[47] Sometimes the favors requested were very limited in scope, as when an official license had to be secured from the Lord Treasurer to land goods in the port from a stranger’s ship.[48] Sometimes they were large, as when new powers were begged from the Crown in the form of letters patent.[49] But often there was an air of crisis in dealings with royal officials, as when there was trouble with the royal purveyors, or when new impositions were set upon imported goods, or when disagreements arose with the Customs officers. Urgent meetings were called and streams of letters sent to the king pleading for redress of the wrong, sometimes carried by delegations of merchants ready to appeal personally to their connections in Westminster. To the Merchant Venturers the state was a source of bounty, a reservoir of favors and privileges to be tapped if they could. But in its demands for money and control, it was also a threat to commercial enterprise, something to be kept at a distance if at all possible. On the whole, the Society’s lobbying of the Crown was successful. If it did not always achieve its members’ more ambitious goals, it usually managed to alleviate the difficulties they had with royal officials.[50]

This capacity to intercede with the Crown in the interests of its membership also brought benefits to the economic lives of the Merchant Venturers. Strictly speaking, the Society was a regulated company under whose ordinances individual traders conducted their business on a private basis. Although the principle of individual enterprise generally prevailed, if a royal license was required to export a particular commodity only the action of the Society as a whole made it possible. There was joint stock, for example, to ship eighteen hundred barrels of butter a year under a license held by George Henley of London. For this purpose the entire membership of the Society acted as Henley’s partner.[51] A similar arrangement for exporting calfskins was made in 1615 between the Crown and Francis Knight, John Whitson, Mathew Haviland, Robert Aldworth, and Abell Kitchen, merchants acting in effect as feoffees for their fellow Merchant Venturers, with William Lewis, Collector of Customs at Bristol, serving as the Crown’s agent for the grant. When Knight died two years later, a new agreement was reached between Lewis and twenty-eight Merchant Venturers acting on behalf of themselves and their fellows.[52] In both cases, the licenses were acquired by a joint-stock venture managed by the Society, then divided among the participants, who shipped the licensed commodity abroad for their own account.

By far the most important public business transacted by the Society concerned the protection of trade against official or semi-official intrusion. The case of the New England fishery, which by the early seventeenth century had come to play an important part in Bristol’s trading economy, provides a useful illustration of how problems arose and how the Society fended them off. In 1621, Sir Ferdinando Gorges, acting in his role as President of the Council for New England, approached all the western ports with a scheme for the plantation of New England and for government of fishing ventures on its shores. The plan involved the creation of six “staple” towns, each with its own treasurer and group of commissioners, through which all Englishmen desiring to participate in New England enterprise must “putt in his aduenture into the Common stock of one of these Citties…Corporate togeather with the rest to bee managed by the Treasourer & Commissioners for the publique good of the Adventurers.” This proposed arrangement was heartily supported by the Privy Council, which not only threatened summary punishment of all those who might violate Gorges’s letters patent but also severely chastised the city governments of Bristol, Exeter, and Plymouth when they refused to submit to the newly formed Council for New England.[53]

The Bristol Merchant Venturers, however, were extremely reluctant to enter into such a complex and risky undertaking and used every available tactic of delay to avoid doing so, including sending responses to Gorges’s letters to a place they knew he would not be. They found his articles of plantation “so difficult,” they said, “that…they cannot Conclude” to join in his enterprise without a conference with him, followed by further deliberations among themselves. In the interim, they hoped that “if…any particular men of their Company shall set forth any shipping on a fishing voyadg for that Country,” Gorges would accept “an indifferent rate” from them for the privilege. At the conference, held in October, Gorges informed the merchants that even though his patent did not give him the power to restrain fishing, it did permit him to forbid the use of the shore to salt and dry fish, which is what he proposed to do. Since commercial fishing would then have become fruitless, the Merchant Venturers asked Gorges what he would require from those who wished to send ships just for the purpose of fishing. Gorges’s initial demand was for 10 percent of each venture, valued in shipping as well as the profits of the catch itself, but after much debate he agreed to allow them fishing rights provided they each carried over one man and £10 of provisions for every thirty tons of shipping they used, with the merchants bearing the costs of the provisions.[54]

Some of the Merchant Venturers found this an acceptable arrangement, but many hoped to avoid agreeing to it. Since Parliament was in session, they wrote to the city’s members, both Merchant Venturers themselves, requesting that these men acquire a copy of Gorges’s patent to see if he did indeed have the power to restrain Bristol’s fishing and also to seek protection in Parliament or elsewhere for “the quiet engaging of fishing.”[55] Here Bristol was especially fortunate, since it possessed at least one good friend on the Council for New England, the earl of Arundel, who earlier that year—soon after he had joined the Council—had been allowed to name the city’s new town clerk.[56] Through Arundel’s efforts and the concerted attack on Gorges’s patent mounted by the West Country fishermen in the Commons, a further concession was wrenched from the Council. Gorges finally wrote that “it is not…intended to debar any Regular or honest [traders] from a free recourse” to New England, so long as they conformed themselves to the reasonable conditions and just and lawful orders made by his Council for the advantage of the plantation. He agreed, therefore, to permit the treasurer at Exeter to grant Bristolians licenses if they wished to frequent New England, even for purposes other than fishing.[57]

What troubled the Merchant Venturers was the loss of independence that Gorges’s plan entailed. As reported by the two Bristol members of Parliament in London, the city’s merchants and shipowners liked neither the idea of forming a joint stock with the merchants of other western ports nor the prospect of being governed by the President and Council for New England. This same concern surfaced whenever the Bristolians were threatened with a loss of local autonomy in their trade, as they were at various times during the early seventeenth century in regard to the Spanish Company, the French Company, and the Levant Company.[58] To prevent this from happening they were able to use a variety of political resources at their disposal—their prominence in the city government, their service in Parliament, and their connections in London—all made the more effective by their ability to present a united front to the authorities. Had Gorges been able to win over even a minority of the Merchant Venturers to his demands, he no doubt would have been able, with the Privy Council’s assistance, to exact his due from the rest. But the concerted resistance of the Society, acting for the Merchant Venturers as a whole, made it impossible to adopt such a strategy of divide and conquer.

The initial impulse behind the foundation of the Merchant Venturers was to give the city’s new community of overseas merchants the capacity to defend its common interests in an era of severe economic constraint. What from the perspective of economic history was little more than an effect of large and impersonal social processes soon became a social force on its own. The merchants who brought the Merchant Venturers into being transformed their relations with one another from a mere feature of the economic environment into an active shaper of their world. Like the beaver whose dam-building creates a habitat to suit its form of life, they remade their social landscape. We can perhaps best see the effects of these changes by looking closely at what happened to the patterns of social mobility in Bristol in the years following the Society’s foundation.

The phrase “social mobility” can refer to two very different social processes. In communities that highly value an individual’s or a family’s command over goods and services, change in real wealth is the primary criterion. Here a person—before recent times usually it would be a man—might improve his position in society simply by increasing his income or the number or worth of his possessions while remaining in his particular social niche or occupation all his life. As he goes from being a poor or middling farmer, shoemaker, or lawyer to a rich one, he ascends the social ladder. In other kinds of community, however, social recognition and deference are granted principally according to social rank, defined as the place held in a fixed hierarchy of social stations assigned by birth or career. To move upward in this form of society it is necessary to marry well, thereby improving family bloodlines and connections, or to rise in rank by changing career or acquiring honored office. But even the most status-conscious societies maintain a close link between wealth and social position, since an individual’s social standing helps determine his access to wealth, and fulfillment of his social obligations requires material resources. If wealth is wisely used, moreover, it offers increased opportunity for improved status, if not for the individual, then for his posterity.

Sixteenth and early seventeenth-century Bristol was a hierarchical society in which legal and quasi-legal distinctions such as those between freemen and non-freemen, ruler and ruled, were of crucial significance. But, because it was a commercial city, its inhabitants were also deeply concerned with the acquisition of wealth. Indeed, the achievement of social rank was founded as much on the accumulation of money and possessions as on birth: as successful individuals or families increased their wealth, they were often able to move upward in rank. Unfortunately, direct study of patterns of social mobility based solely on accumulated capital or liquid assets is impossible. We can, however, use an individual’s occupation as a useful guide to his place in the social order. Not only did a man’s occupation define his economic role, it helped shape his social connections and his chances to achieve both riches and recognition. Hence, occupational mobility can serve as a general, if limited, indicator of social mobility more broadly construed. Admittedly, we shall be using a rather crude instrument to accomplish this goal. Occupation alone can tell us very little of any particular individual’s life history. Knowing whether an early modern Bristolian identified himself as a grocer or weaver, merchant or wiredrawer, cannot help us to predict his actual achievements accurately. But such information in the aggregate gives some insight into the relative chances the members of particular groups had to acquire wealth, status, and power and how these chances may have changed over time. Provided we want no more than a general estimate of the overall pattern of mobility and a general sense of the direction of change, this technique seems worth pursuing, even though the aggregation of our data, with its tendency to lump dissimilar cases into common categories, necessarily exaggerates some features of the story while flattening others. Allowing for these shortcomings in our method, what can we determine about the relative openness of Bristol’s social structure before and after the foundation of the Merchant Venturers?

The study of occupational mobility in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries necessarily begins with the institution of apprenticeship. In conjunction with training a young man in the skills of his chosen trade or craft, it established him within the network of business relations in the trading community. For merchants, this process took place in the actual course of trade, as the young apprentice, after receiving the rudiments of training in his master’s household, was allowed considerable opportunity to make his own judgments and decisions in the marketplace. In nearly every other trade, however, apprenticeship also involved both a social and an economic aspect. Under the protection and discipline of a master, young men were not merely trained in the techniques of a craft but were sent on errands to buy raw materials, to settle debts, and to bring finished goods to customers, or, alternatively, were left to look after the shop for short periods while their masters saw to these tasks. If they were to fulfill their purpose as servants, it could not be otherwise. Just how a particular individual was used depended on his years of service, his trustworthiness, and the nature of his craft. Among retailers, the apprentice’s contacts were more likely to be with customers frequenting the shop than with merchant suppliers; among craftsmen, they were more likely to be with the middlemen and other manufacturers in the chain of production with whom his master ordinarily dealt. In these ways service as an apprentice helped to establish the economic opportunities the young man might later have as a master in his own right and also set him in a social network that affected both his future livelihood and his way of life.[59]

The institution of apprenticeship was also tied to occupational mobility in a much more direct way. In many urban families, children stayed at home only until they were old enough to find places in the service of others. This was more than a consequence of the peculiar fact, often remarked upon by foreigners, that the English sent their children at an early age to be raised as apprentices or servants outside the family.[60] It was also the result of hard economic realities. Many fathers and mothers died young, leaving their children orphans who had to be placed with strangers if they were to survive and find livelihoods of their own. Even when one or both parents remained alive, it was often impossible for the family to employ all its children within the household or provide them with formal educations in the professions or set them up on the land. Since many other households simultaneously found themselves needing extra labor to manage their affairs, a regular system developed to exchange children between families in both urban and rural communities. Although, as we shall see for Bristol, many sons simply followed in their father’s footsteps when pursuing their livelihood, many others did not, either because they were unable to or because they had been placed elsewhere to better themselves. In effect, there was a market for their services, conditioned by the individual family’s ability to employ its own children, the supply of and demand for servant labor in particular industries, and the economic and social connections of the people involved. Where premiums were charged for taking on the care and training of young men, as they often were in lucrative trades such as that of overseas merchant, the ability of the family to pay the going rate was a factor. Seen in the aggregate, the resulting distribution of occupations reflects in a concrete fashion the state of the labor market at any particular time and the differences between periods encapsulates the changes in that market. In so saying, however, we note only the fact of movement. We need not assume that a young man’s father or guardian necessarily sought the best possible service for him, although surely many—probably most—did so, since it was in their interests and those of their kin that each member of the family be placed where he could do the others the most good.

Apprenticeship was the most formal type of “fostering” arrangement for children, if it may be so called. In most urban places apprenticeship already had a long history in local custom before the passage of the Statute of Artificers in 1563 incorporated it into national law. What makes it an especially useful institution for our present purposes is that its administration depended on the use of written instruments, called indentures, which in Bristol were carefully enrolled in the central city records kept at the Tolzey. The earliest of these records survive from 1532. These indentures typically name the father of the apprentice, giving his occupation, and the young apprentice’s new master, giving his occupation as well. Using these indentures in their enrolled form, we can glimpse the overall patterns of occupational mobility in Bristol from one generation to another by comparing the occupations into which the sons of Bristolians were apprenticed with those of their fathers. In studying this material we need to look, as it were, at both the outward and the inward traffic in apprentices. To which trades were fathers in particular industries most likely to apprentice their sons? From which trades were those in particular industries most likely to have attracted their apprentices? For our purposes the more important information is the former, since it tells us in some measure about the ways the life chances of members of particular groups were affected over time. Records for two ten-year periods have been chosen for this purpose: 1532–1542 and 1626–1636.[61]

Let us take the history of the leather trades as an example, counting those engaged in leather production together with those who used the finished product to make such items as saddles, aprons, and gloves. In the period from 1532 to 1542, some two hundred and seventy-six men were apprenticed in Bristol in these industries, of whom sixty, just under a quarter, were Bristolians. From 1626 to 1636, two hundred and ninety-three men were apprenticed in the same industry, of whom ninety-five, nearly a third, were Bristolians. Given the fact that Bristol’s population had grown by at least 25 percent between the two periods, however, the difference in the total number of apprentices in these industries represents a net decline in demand for apprentices of 20 percent or more. This fall was sharpest in the crafts engaged in leather production itself; between 1532 and 1542, one hundred and fifty men were apprenticed there; in the period from 1626 to 1636, the number had fallen to one hundred and three men, which, in light of the population growth, means a real fall in the demand for apprentices in this sector of the economy of something in excess of 50 percent. The slack was taken up largely by an increase of more than 100 percent in the number of shoemakers apprenticed in the city, as we might expect in response to its own population growth and its growing role as a center of regional trade in the west.[62]

Turning now to the Bristol-born apprentices in the leather trades, we find that in the 1530s and 1540s the fathers of almost 50 percent of all these apprentices were themselves involved in the manufacture of leather or of leather products, and just over 63 percent of those Bristolians in the leather crafts who apprenticed sons in this period put them out in the leather trades. In the 1620s and 1630s the rates were somewhat lower, with both figures at about 46 percent, which almost certainly reflects the diminished demand for labor in these industries rather than increased social mobility. In addition, an impressive percentage in each period were apprenticed not merely in the industry but in their father’s specific occupation—shoemakers’ sons to shoemakers and whitawers’ sons to whitawers. These same data also yield a second significant result. In both periods the sons of leather craftsmen apprenticed outside their father’s own industry were placed largely in the minor crafts or in the noncommercial sectors of the economy, not among the large-scale entrepreneurs. Between the two periods, however, the proportion of leather craftsmen’s sons indentured in the most lucrative trades had become smaller. In the period 1532–1542 it was just over a third; in the 1626–1636 period it was only about 5 percent. This fall is perhaps indicative of the declining position of the leather industry in Bristol, which left its members less able to support the capital requirements of overseas trade and large-scale commercial dealing, demands which themselves may have been growing in this period. It suggests an increasing gulf between the leather trades and the merchants and leading retailers of the city (Table 12).

12. Bristolians in the Leather Industries
(Production and Secondary Use), 1532-1542 and 1626-1636
  1532–1542 1626–1636
  Sons[a] Fathers[b] Sons[a] Fathers[b]
  No. % No. % No. % No. %
Source: 1532–1542: D. Hollis, ed., Calendar of the Bristol Apprentice Book, 1532–1565. Part 1: 1532–1542 (Bristol Record Society 14, 1949). 1626–1636: Bristol Record Office, Apprentice Book, 1626–1640, ff. 1r–333r.
Leading entrepreneurs
  Merchants 3 5.00 2 2.60     3 3.13
  Major retailers 5 8.33 5 6.49 3 3.15 12 12.50
  Soapmakers, chandlers             3 3.13
    Total 8 13.33 7 9.09 3 3.15 18 18.75
Textile industries 7 11.67 8 10.40 13 13.68 5 5.21
Leather industries 38 63.33 38 49.35 44 46.32 44 45.83
Metal industries 3 5.00 1 1.30 14 14.74 5 5.21
Building trades     3 3.90 6 6.32 4 4.17
Shipping and related trading and port activities 2 3.33 12 15.58 10 10.53 8 8.33
Woodworking         3 3.15    
Food production 1 1.67 7 9.09 1 1.05 7 7.29
Professional and service trades                
Gentlemen, esquires             1 1.05
Miscellaneous 1 1.67 1 1.30 1 1.05 4 4.17
    Total known 60   77   95   96  
    Total unknown     12       4  
      Total 60   89   95   100  

This interpretation of the data presented in Table 12 is complicated by the comparatively large increase in the number and proportion of apprentices entering the industry who were the sons of major entrepreneurs. From 1626–1636, eighteen of the new apprentices in the leather industry came from this kind of social background. But only seven were placed with shoemakers at the lower end of the scale in the industry, and none of these came from the ranks of the merchants, grocers, mercers, drapers, or great soapmakers, but from the haberdashers and innholders, who rarely achieved the wealth or power of the other occupations in this classification. Of the remaining eleven, nine were bound to whitawers, the one leather craft in Bristol that served more than the immediate local market and that maintained a high demand for labor in the seventeenth century. The sons of the city’s leading entrepreneurs thus seem to have competed heavily with the children of leather craftsmen only for the most lucrative positions in the industry, largely leaving the remaining leather trades to others.[63]

Similar patterns of occupational mobility reveal themselves in the textile trades, where the demand for labor had more or less stabilized during these years (Table 13). Between 1532 and 1542, three hundred and fifty-two men were apprenticed in Bristol in crafts engaged in the production of cloth and woolen clothing, of whom seventy-two, or a fifth, were Bristolians. Between 1626 and 1636, five hundred and sixty-two men were apprenticed in this same group of industries, of whom one hundred and seventy-three, or just under a third, were Bristolians. Taking population growth into account, the increase in the total number of new apprentices between the two periods amounts to about 20 percent, but demand for labor ran significantly ahead of the general population expansion only among cappers or feltmakers and tailors; weavers also show some increase, but this occurred primarily among those making cheaper-quality woolens.[64] From 1532 to 1542, nearly 53 percent of all Bristol-based clothiers, weavers, dyers, clothworkers, tailors, and other textile craftsmen who apprenticed sons in the city placed them in one of the textile industries; between 1626 and 1636 the figure was almost exactly 55 percent. The largest portion of those apprenticed in this economic sector were themselves sons of cloth and clothing manufacturers, and the increased percentage of Bristolians apprenticed in these industries in the 1620s and 1630s came primarily from among this same group. Once again, many of the new apprentices in these trades were indentured in exactly the same craft as their fathers. In the first period the figure is just over 23 percent, and in the second it is just under 33 percent. The shift suggests a hardening of social boundaries similar to that in the leather industries. By the seventeenth century, indeed, the textile crafts, even more than the leather trades, had become isolated from the upper reaches of the civic social order. Not only was the proportion of leading entrepreneurs’ sons in these crafts relatively low, especially if we consider Bristol’s population growth in the previous century, but the percentage of textile producers’ children who entered the most lucrative of the city’s trades was markedly reduced from the levels of a century before.

13. Bristolians in the Textile Industries (Production and Secondary Use),
1532-1542 and 1626-1636
  1532–1542 1626–1636
  Sons[a] Fathers[b] Sons[a] Fathers[b]
  No. % No. % No. % No. %
Source: 1532–1542: D. Hollis, ed., Calendar of the Bristol Apprentice Book, 1532–1565. Part 1: 1532–1542 (Bristol Record Society 14, 1949). 1626–1636: Bristol Record Office, Apprentice Book, 1626–1640, ff. 1r–333r.
Leading entrepreneurs
  Merchants 4 5.56 5 5.75 3 1.75 3 1.61
  Major retailers 4 5.56 3 3.45 7 4.09 10 5.38
  Soapmakers, chandlers 2 2.78 2 2.30 1 0.58 4 2.15
    Total 10 13.89 10 11.49 11 6.43 17 9.14
Textile industries 38 52.78 38 43.68 94 54.97 94 50.54
Leather industries 8 11.11 6 6.90 6 3.51 13 6.99
Metal industries 4 5.56 8 9.20 19 11.11 7 3.76
Building trades     6 6.90 8 4.68 9 4.84
Shipping and related trading and port activities 4 5.56 7 8.05 18 10.53 13 6.99
Woodworking         1 0.58 1 0.54
Food production 3 4.17 6 6.90 10 5.85 10 5.34
Professional and service trades 2 2.78     2 1.17 1 0.54
Gentlemen, esquires     1 1.15     4 2.15
Miscellaneous 3 4.17 5 5.75 2 1.17 17 9.14
    Total known 72   87   171   186  
    Total unknown     8   2   7  
      Total 72   95   173   193  

Whereas the leather trades were in decline in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries and the textile industries in a period of stability or slow growth, the metalworking industries were experiencing something of a boom. Even though the recruitment of labor in the latter was subject to different economic pressures than employment in the leather and textile trades, metalworking shows the same general pattern of limited occupational mobility as the other two. From 1532 to 1542, only one hundred and twenty-one men were apprenticed in metal trades in Bristol, of whom thirty-seven, or about 30 percent, were Bristolians. From 1626 to 1636, three hundred and seventeen men were apprenticed in these same trades, of whom one hundred and forty-four, or about 45 percent, were Bristolians. During the first of these periods, only about 30 percent of those apprenticed in these crafts were themselves the sons of metal craftsmen.[65] In addition, only about 16 percent of the apprentices in the metal industries were placed in exactly the same craft as their fathers (Table 14). This suggests that the metal trades in this period were less able than other industries to provide livelihoods for the sons of their own members. But the avenues of mobility were not significantly more open than for sons of the other tradesmen. Rather than showing an even distribution of metal craftsmen’s sons throughout the economy, the data reveal a marked concentration in the textile trades, especially in cloth production, which perhaps reflects the location of the metal industries in the same city neighborhoods as the clothmaking crafts in this period.[66] It is also significant that only a small percentage of new apprentices in the metal industries were the sons of the city’s leading entrepreneurs. By the early seventeenth century, however, the state of this sector of Bristol’s economy had vastly improved. In the period from 1626 to 1636, almost 62 percent of the sons of metal craftsmen indentured were placed in the metal trades themselves. At the same time, the proportion of those bound in exactly the same occupation as their fathers increased to 27 percent. The remaining Bristol-born apprentices in these industries came from a relatively wide range of family backgrounds. But only a very small percentage of metal craftsmen’s sons ever entered the service of the city’s leading entrepreneurs. Although pewterers and goldsmiths were among Bristol’s wealthier inhabitants and attracted some apprentices from the families of merchants and other major dealers, the sons of metal craftsmen rarely could enter the upper echelons of Bristol’s social order.

14. Bristolians in the Metalworking Industries, 1532-1542 and 1626-1636
  1532–1542 1626–1636
  Sons[a] Fathers[b] Sons[a] Fathers[b]
  No. % No. % No. % No. %
Source: 1532–1542: D. Hollis, ed., Calendar of the Bristol Apprentice Book, 1532–1565. Part 1: 1532–1542 (Bristol Record Society 14, 1949). 1626–1636: Bristol Record Office, Apprentice Book, 1626–1640, ff. 1r–333r.
Leading entrepreneurs
  Merchants     1 2.70 3 3.70 1 0.72
  Major retailers     1 2.70 1 1.23 7 5.07
  Soapmakers, chandlers 1 4.17         1 0.72
    Total 1 4.17 2 5.41 4 4.94 9 6.52
Textile industries[c] 9 37.50 4 10.81 7 8.64 19 14.77
Leather industries[c] 1 4.17 3 8.11 5 6.17 16 11.59
Metal industries 11 45.83 11 29.73 50 61.73 50 36.23
Building trades         4 4.94 13 9.42
Shipping and related trading and port activities 1 4.17 3 8.11 9 11.11 9 6.52
Woodworking             1 0.72
Food production     4 10.81 1 1.23 10 7.25
Professional and service trades 1 4.17 2 5.41 1 1.23    
Gentlemen, esquires
Miscellaneous     3 8.11     11 7.97
    Total known 24   32   81   138  
    Total unknown     5       6  
      Total 24   37   81   144  

The picture appears to have been the same everywhere in Bristol. Between the second quarter of the sixteenth century and the second quarter of the seventeenth a growing percentage of Bristolians were apprenticed in the same craft as their fathers. The evidence of apprenticeships within the city of Bristol-born young men whose social backgrounds we can determine shows almost 25 percent in the first period, and over 33 percent in the second. This evidence suggests not only that Bristol’s social order was composed increasingly of kin-based occupational groupings but that social barriers were becoming higher as well. Early sixteenth-century Bristol was by no means an open society in which individuals and families readily changed social station from generation to generation, but movement from trade to trade, at least within a given group of industries, was markedly easier in this period than it would be a hundred years later.[67] Taken by themselves, these changes are important enough. But they gain significance when considered in the light of Bristol’s commercial expansion in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and its 25 percent or more increase in population. Under these new conditions, maintenance of the status quo, if not an actual growth in the social diversity, might have been expected. Instead, economic and demographic growth was accompanied by the development of a somewhat more rigidly hierarchical social order.

The key to understanding these changes in social mobility lies in developments among Bristol’s leading entrepreneurs—its merchants, major retailers, and soapmakers—who occupied the social heights in the city. The composition of the category we have designated “major commercial and entrepreneurial occupations” is different from that of those previously discussed. As used here, it denotes merchants, major retailers such as mercers, grocers and drapers, and one group of manufacturers, the soapmakers. Hence, it links individuals whose common characteristic is command over considerable quantities of capital, rather than participation in the same industry or the performance of the same economic function. This is perhaps especially noticeable for the soapmakers. Although their participation in the national market made them as much large-scale dealers as manufacturers, their place among the city’s magnates results from their financial resources and consequent social power. It has been impossible to identify other manufacturers whose investment in fixed capital or role in the national market would warrant their inclusion in this category. It has been necessary, therefore, to exclude rather arbitrarily those brewers, whitawers, glovers, pewterers, braziers, and goldsmiths whose investment in capital equipment or raw materials and participation in a regional or national market might have made them the equals of the soapmakers. In the textile industry, particularly during the sixteenth century, some tailors, tuckers, and clothworkers acted as clothiers or drapers, putting out raw material for manufacture or selling cloth by the yard or the piece to retail customers. But, unlike the soapmakers, nearly all of whom were significant entrepreneurs, in these other trades and industries only detailed knowledge of each man’s business would reveal whom to include among the leading entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, the surviving evidence is insufficient for this purpose. At the other end of the scale, the category of “leading entrepreneur” may include some individuals whose economic importance was rather small. Many haberdashers, for example, were merely small-scale dealers in odds and ends, rather than purveyors of high-priced, first-quality goods such as grocers, drapers, and mercers tended to sell. Similarly, some innholders were little more than tavernkeepers, renting their property from some major figure and acting as his agent. But the distortion resulting from their inclusion is more than outweighed by the number of leading entrepreneurs among the tailors, whitawers, pewterers, and the like who have been excluded solely on the basis of occupation.[68]

Although a number of leading entrepreneurs apprenticed their sons in the ranks below them, they often searched out successful masters in the more lucrative manufacturing industries, such as whitawers, goldsmiths, and brewers, for this purpose (Table 15). Access to the upper reaches of the social hierarchy was largely closed to men in lesser trades and crafts. In terms of social mobility, the civic elite lived very much in a world unto itself. Just as with other trades, throughout our period elite fathers showed a strong tendency to apprentice their sons in their own sector of the economy and to draw their apprentices from the same circles. In each period, slightly over 50 percent of the sons of Bristol’s leading entrepreneurs who were apprenticed within the city were placed with masters in this same group of trades. Between the early sixteenth century and the early seventeenth, there was a 10 percent increase, from 48 to 58 percent, in the number of Bristol-born apprentices entering these trades whose fathers were leading entrepreneurs. The distribution of other occupations represented among the Bristolians apprenticed in this category also changed. Between 1532 and 1542, only twelve of the Bristol-born apprentices who became indentured to merchants, major retailers, or soapmakers came from families in the city’s large-scale industries, such as brewing and whitawing. The fathers of twenty-one others came from among the minor crafts, such as shoemaking. A similar pattern appears in the distribution of occupations filled by the sons of the city’s leading entrepreneurs from 1532 to 1542. Merchants and other major entrepreneurs placed twenty-nine of their sons as apprentices in manufacturing trades, but only ten of them joined in the more important crafts such as brewing and whitawing. In other words, in the early sixteenth century Bristol’s leading entrepreneurs drew their apprentices from a relatively wide range of family backgrounds and placed their own sons in a relatively wide range of occupations. Between 1626 and 1636, however, both distributions were much narrower. In this period, the sixty-three Bristolians who moved from outside the city’s economic leadership to apprenticeships within it came from families of generally high social standing. Ten were sons of gentlemen, two of parish clergy, and one of a physician. At the same time, the noncommercial occupations to which the sons of major entrepreneurs were apprenticed show a similar change. Fewer of them entered the lesser trades and more went into crafts that enjoyed national markets for their wares. The evidence indicates that the upper echelons of Bristol’s social hierarchy were more homogeneous in family background in Charles I’s reign than had been the case in Henry VIII’s and that by the 1630s the cream of the apprenticeships in Bristol was being skimmed by the sons of the city’s leading entrepreneurs.[69]

15. Bristolians in Major Commercial and Entrepreneurial
Occupations, 1532-1542 and 1626-1636
  1532–1542 1626–1636
  Sons[a] Fathers[b] Sons[a] Fathers[b]
  No. % No. % No. % No. %
Source: 1532–1542: D. Hollis, ed., Calendar of the Bristol Apprentice Book, 1532–1565. Part 1: 1532–1542 (Bristol Record Society 14, 1949). 1626–1636: Bristol Record Office, Apprentice Book, 1626–1640, ff. 1r–333r.
Leading entrepreneurs
  Merchants 17 28.81 16 25.40 34 25.40 25 16.89
  Major retailers 11 18.64 14 22.22 30 18.52 38 25.68
  Soapmakers, chandlers 2 3.39     21 12.96 22 13.10
    Total 30 50.84 30 47.62 85 52.47 85 57.43
Textile industries[c] 11 18.64 10 15.87 19 11.73 11 7.43
Leather industries[c] 7 11.86 9 14.29 18 11.11 3 2.03
Metal industries 2 3.39 1 1.59 9 5.56 4 2.70
Building trades     2 3.17 2 1.23 4 2.70
Shipping and related trading and port activities 2 3.39 6 9.52 16 9.88 18 12.16
Woodworking 1 1.69     1 0.62    
Food production 4 6.78 3 4.76 8 4.94 9 6.08
Professional and service trades 1 1.69 1 1.59 4 2.47 1 0.68
Gentlemen, esquires             10 6.76
Miscellaneous 1 1.69 1 1.59     3 2.03
    Total known 59   63   162   148  
    Total unknown     5       9  
      Total 59   68   162   157  

Over a long period these patterns of apprenticeship were bound to create networks of kinship among the active masters in every sector of the economy, as ties between father and son and brother and brother ramified throughout each trade or craft. But even in the short term, the high number of sons apprenticed to their father’s fellows in one branch or another of commerce or industry suggests the existence of very intimate social bonds within each group of masters. Where the forming of an apprenticeship tie did not reflect already well-established connections of blood and business, new ones were bound to come into being by the very placing of a son under the tutelage of a fellow Bristolian. In other words, the framework within which most Bristolians carried on their social and economic affairs had a distinctly occupational character, in the sense that trade or craft determined many other social ties. This was as true for the Merchant Venturers, whose membership we know accurately only from 1605, as for any of the other identifiable groups in the mercantile community. In these circles it was fairly common for sons to leave trade for one of the professions or to live on income from land their fathers had acquired. Judging by evidence derived from the Bristol burgess records, which enroll the names of men claiming the freedom of the city, those who followed their fathers into trade usually were apprenticed to other Merchant Venturers; often they married into Merchant Venturer families as well.[70]

The model of society employed in the foregoing analysis is the social pyramid, with an undifferentiated body of wage laborers at the base and the leading overseas merchants at the apex. In such a social order the number of places available in a given rank is fixed, with only a handful of places at the top. Within this framework the meaning of the term “social mobility” is limited. Strictly speaking, it can refer only to the relative ease with which members of different social groupings attain access to the various positions in society, since no more than a small portion of the population can ever reach the heights. Using this definition, an increase in social mobility denotes an improvement in the chances members of the lower ranks have for social betterment, not a rise in the proportion of the total population achieving the upper reaches of the pyramid, which under our definition is a logical impossibility. Under this interpretation, an increase in social mobility indicates only the achievement of a more representative distribution of social backgrounds through all levels of the social hierarchy.

But a second, broader way of considering social mobility is sometimes confused with the first. If a change upward or downward is observed in the percentage of the population able to reach the pinnacle of society, what has occurred is the development of a new framework of social organization. This kind of social mobility is different in character from the first, since an increase or decrease in the percentage of the population reaching the topmost positions can result only from a change in the proportion of positions at the top. In other words, in order for there to be social mobility in this second sense, the old social pyramid has to disappear and be replaced by a structure with a different shape. The new one could be just another pyramid with steeper or more gently rising sides. But it could also be something closer in form to a Siennese tower, with a small room atop a narrow staircase, or to the Empire State Building, with a small tower perched above a larger one. Or it could be analogous to a modern glass-and-steel office block, with clean rectilinear lines. The degree of social mobility possible in a society in the first of our two senses will depend on this second, structural sense, that is to say, on what form society takes and on the consequent proportion of places in the various ranks.

The social changes experienced in Bristol between the 1530s and the 1630s were of the second type: they were changes in structure, rather than in mobility narrowly construed. During this century Bristol became a society in which the topmost positions tended increasingly to be inherited by those born into high rank. We can see this difference in several ways. Between 1532 and 1542, two hundred and eighty-two men were apprenticed to the diverse group of leading entrepreneurs, of whom sixty-eight, or about a quarter, were Bristolians. From 1626 to 1636, five hundred and sixty-four men were apprenticed in this group of trades, of whom one hundred and fifty-seven, or almost 28 percent, were Bristolians. Taking merchants separately, one hundred and nineteen of them were apprenticed between 1532 and 1542, and one hundred and forty-two between 1626 and 1636 (Table 16).[71] In other words, between the end of Henry VIII’s reign and the beginning of Charles I’s there was a dramatic change in the proportion of merchants to major retailers and soapmakers. In the earlier period, merchant apprentices represented about 42 percent of all those we have classified as leading entrepreneurs, but in the later period they represented only about 25 percent. Whereas the total number of merchants apprenticed in Bristol increased by less than 20 percent—in other words, below the rate of population increase—the total number of apprentices in all crafts almost doubled and the total number of apprentices among the other leading entrepreneurs increased more than two and a half times.

16. Occupations Into Which Bristolians and Non-Bristolians
Were Apprenticed in Bristol, 1532-1542 and 1626-1636
  1532–1542 1626–1636
  Bristolians Non-Bristolians Total Bristolians Non-Bristolians Total
Source: 1532–1542: D. Hollis, ed., Calendar of the Bristol Apprentice Book, 1532–1565. Part 1: 1532–1542 (Bristol Record Society 14, 1949). 1626–1636: Bristol Record Office, Apprentice Book, 1626–1640, ff. 1r–333r.
  Leading entrepreneurs
    Merchants 31 88 119 63 79 142
         % of total known men 8.20 8.63 8.51 6.57 4.48 5.22
         % of category 26.05 73.95   44.37 55.63  
    Major retailers 31 114 145 65 268 333
         % of total known men 8.20 11.18 10.37 6.78 15.20 12.23
         % of category 21.38 78.62   19.52 80.48  
    Soapmakers and chandlers 6 12 18 29 60 89
         % of total known men 1.59 1.18 1.29 3.02 3.40 3.27
         % of category 33.33 66.67   32.58 67.42  
           Total 68 214 282 157 407 564
           % of total known men 17.99 20.98 20.17 16.37 23.09 20.72
           % of category 24.11 75.89   27.84 72.16  
    Textile production 56 140 196 124 229 353
         % of total known men 14.81 13.73 14.02 12.93 12.99 12.97
         % of category 28.57 71.43   35.13 64.87  
    Leather production 51 99 150 38 65 103
         % of total known men 13.49 9.71 10.73 3.96 3.69 3.78
         % of category 34.00 66.00   36.89 63.11  
    Clothing production and other
   secondary users of cloth and leather
85 202 287 146 247 393
         % of total known men 22.49 19.80 20.53 15.22 14.01 14.44
         % of category 29.62 70.38   37.15 62.85  
    Metal crafts 37 84 121 144 173 317
         % of total known men 9.79 8.24 8.66 15.02 9.81 11.65
         % of category 30.58 69.42   45.43 54.57  
    Building trades 7 28 35 69 128 197
         % of total known men 1.85 2.75 2.50 7.19 7.26 7.24
         % of category 20.00 80.00   35.03 64.97  
    Shipping and related trading
   and port activities
26 129 155 193 328 521
         % of total known men 6.88 12.65 11.09 20.13 18.60 19.14
         % of category 16.77 83.23   37.04 62.96  
    Food production
   and related industries
20 71 91 50 121 171
         % of total known men 5.29 6.96 6.51 5.21 6.86 6.28
         % of category 21.98 78.02   29.24 70.76  
    Woodworking 6 12 18 11 9 20
         % of total known men 1.59 1.18 1.29 1.15 0.51 0.73
         % of category 33.33 66.67   55.00 45.00  
    Professional and service industries 15 27 42 19 49 68
         % of total known men 3.97 2.65 3.00 1.98 2.78 2.50
         % of category 35.71 64.29   27.94 72.06  
    Miscellaneous 7 14 21 8 7 15
         % of total known men 1.85 1.37 1.50 0.83 0.40 0.55
         % of category 33.33 66.67   53.33 46.67  
          Total known 378 1,020 1,398 959 1,763 2,722
          Total unknown[a] 1 6 7 5 7 12
            Total men 379 1,026 1,405 964 1,770 2,734
         % of total 93.58 97.53 96.43 93.14 97.41 95.86
         % of category 26.98 73.02   35.26 64.74  
Women 26 26 52 71 47 118
         % of total known women 6.42 2.47 3.57 6.86 2.59 4.14
         % of category 50.00 50.00   60.17 39.83  
      Total Men and Women 405 1,052 1,457 1,035 1,817 2,852
         % of category 27.80 72.20   36.29 63.71  

These figures suggest that either the size or the number of retail establishments grew faster than did merchant firms. But the expansion in Bristol’s trade in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries should have had the opposite effect, since the greater scope and complexity of commerce ought to have resulted either in the taking on of additional merchant apprentices to conduct business in different markets or in the establishment of larger numbers of specialized firms working in conjunction with one another. Given that between the late fifteenth century and the late sixteenth, the number of merchants entering goods in the Bristol customs records had fallen from about two hundred and fifty per year to fewer than one hundred,[72] it is clear that no such changes had occurred among merchant firms. Instead merchants must have relied on journeymen to serve as factors and supercargoes in their enterprises. This conclusion in itself suggests that entrance into full participation in the merchant’s trade was more difficult in the early seventeenth century than it had been in the early sixteenth. What explains the increased demand for apprentices among the retailers? Since nothing about the scope or techniques of the drapers’, grocers’, or mercers’ trade had changed significantly between the two periods, at least as far as we know, it is likely that the larger numbers of apprentices entering those enterprises reflect an increase in the number of retail establishments in Bristol while the number of merchant firms declined or remained at the same level as in the 1530s.[73]

Another change also occurred. In Henry VIII’s reign, about a quarter of all merchants’ apprentices and about a fifth of those bound to major retailers and other large-scale dealers and entrepreneurs were native Bristolians. This proportion did not change in the early seventeenth century for the retailers. In the case of the merchants, however, the ratio of Bristolians to non-Bristolians went from about one in four to one in two and a quarter. That is, at the same time that Bristol-born merchant apprentices were becoming a socially more exclusive group, a higher percentage of positions with overseas traders were being filled by residents of the city, often the sons of fellow merchants (see Table 16). From what family backgrounds did the non-Bristolians come? In the pe-riod 1532–1542, they were a relatively diverse group. Of the eighty-eight strangers apprenticed to merchants in this period, only about 15 percent were the sons of esquires and gentlemen; another 17 percent were from the families of merchants and other leading entrepreneurs. The majority came from the less exalted ranks of English society; the industrial crafts, especially textile manufacture, account for just over 25 percent, and agriculture for just over 40 percent. The same general pattern is observed in this period among the apprentices to major retailers and soapmakers. In Charles I’s reign, however, the picture is significantly different. Of the seventy-nine outsiders bound to merchants, only about 13 percent now came from artisan families and another 13 percent from agriculture. The fathers of the rest consist of about 16 percent merchants, 4 percent clergymen, and over 48 percent esquires and gentlemen. The contrast with apprentices in other leading entrepreneurial occupations is striking. Although about 20 percent of non-Bristolians indentured to major retailers and soapmakers had gentry backgrounds, these trades were filled primarily by the sons of yeomen, husbandmen, and minor craftsmen, not from the rural or urban elite.

These data confirm the picture we have been seeing of Bristol society as becoming increasingly rigid and hierarchical in its organization during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. However, apprenticeship reveals the process of occupational and social mobility only at second hand. In and of itself it granted nothing but seven years or more of training and labor in the household of a master. Only if the servant established his own business at the end of his term would apprenticeship have contributed significantly to his advancement. In Bristol and in most other corporate towns in early modern England, this transition was accomplished when a young man entered into the freedom of the town by swearing a formal oath to preserve its liberties and abide by its customs. Performance of this ritual and payment of the appropriate fees gave him full rights to trade under the privileges and immunities of the town. This freedom to trade could be obtained in early modern Bristol in any of four ways: by apprenticeship to a freeman, by patrimony, by marriage to either the daughter or the widow of a freeman, or by redemption, which was accomplished by the vote of the Common Council and the payment of a substantial entry fine. Each signified in its own way that the newcomer possessed social connections within the city. Only apprenticeship, however, permitted an individual truly to earn his place. Even though, as we have just seen, family background limited who became apprenticed to whom, once a young man’s years of service were completed his social origins were technically irrelevant. If he had sufficient resources to start a business of his own, his service in his master’s household fully warranted his entrance into the freedom. The other criteria for admission were different in character, since each stressed the newcomer’s social ties, not his training or economic success. Even redemption, which was purchased, depended less on wealth than on acquiring the goodwill of the Bristol common councillors. As a practical matter this meant having the patronage, and usually also the formal surety, of at least one and commonly several well-established and fiscally sound local businessmen. What is of interest for our purposes is the relative importance of apprenticeship to the other three forms of admission. Since the number of freemen who could successfully carry on business in a particular trade or craft was limited by the size and scope of the market, those admitted by patrimony, marriage, or redemption reduced the number of places available to young men seeking their economic independence by apprenticeship (Table 17).

17. Percentage of Freemen Admitted to Leading Entrepreneurial
Occupations by Patrimony, Redemption, and Marriage, 1607-1651
Source: Bristol Record Office, Burgess Book (1607–1651).
Merchants 36.67 33.33 26.09 60.00 66.67 48.89 36.84 40.48 48.48 55.56 45.71 44.71
Other large-scale dealers, major retailers 20.00 24.44 32.14 24.39 23.40 21.05 26.79 18.18 26.67 25.00 34.69 25.27
Soapmakers and chandlers 25.00 35.71 9.09 6.67 8.33 7.14 5.26 20.00 16.67 10.96
    Total 22.09 25.56 31.18 29.85 30.00 30.70 25.84 27.84 29.46 30.59 36.46 28.89

Unfortunately, we have no long series of admissions to the freedom for the sixteenth century on which to base a comparison, but an examination of the relationship between admissions by apprenticeship to admissions by the three other means in the first half of the seventeenth century shows how difficult it was to become a merchant during this period. Although merchants were one of only three groups in which the ratio between apprenticeships and admissions to the freedom was less than two to one, this fact by itself does not tell us whether a larger than average proportion of merchant apprentices attained the freedom of the city, or whether the percentage of admissions by patrimony, marriage, and redemption was higher for merchants than for other trades.[74] The evidence supports the second conclusion. Between 1607 and 1651, nearly 45 percent of all merchants entering the freedom of Bristol were admitted by patrimony, marriage, or redemption. In some periods the figure was almost 66 percent, and at no time did it fall below 25 percent. The most usual standard was patrimony, which accounted for over two-thirds of the one hundred and thirty-one merchants who were admitted in a way other than by apprenticeship. The figures for major retailers and soapmakers show a much stronger role for apprenticeship. Over the whole period, it accounted for three-quarters of new admissions in these trades, falling only once a fraction below two-thirds. This is the same pattern as in the minor crafts and lesser trades, where typically 70 to 75 percent of new admissions were by apprenticeship. In other words, not only were merchant apprenticeships dominated by the sons of leading entrepreneurs and country gentlemen, but entrance into the seventeenth-century merchant community was more dependent upon birth and family than is true of nearly all other crafts and trades. For members of Bristol’s lower social ranks, moving to the top of the social hierarchy was even more difficult than the apprenticeship data reveal.

The term “merchant” has undergone an evolution in meaning through three distinct phases since the early Middle Ages. According to Charles Gross,

At first it embraced all who, in their trade, were in any way concerned with buying and selling, including petty shopkeepers and many handicraftsmen. During the fifteenth and the greater part of the sixteenth century, it applied preeminently to all who made a business of buying and selling for resale—retailers as well as wholesalers—manual craftsmen not included. It then came to have its present meaning of an extensive dealer.[75]

The earliest stage in this development corresponds to the period of the Gild Merchant, which consisted of all tradesmen of a particular borough. Such a gild is known to have existed in Bristol in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The Gild Merchant was an exclusive society whose constitution preserved to its sworn membership the main economic privilege possessed by a chartered borough—the freedom to buy and sell without paying local customs and tolls. Retail trade was its primary concern, and no distinction was made between overseas traders and those who limited themselves merely to buying and selling in the marketplace or keeping shops. Strictly speaking, the gild consisted of one class of individuals, all of whom possessed the same trading rights, and every gildsman was potentially, if not actually, an overseas merchant. The later Middle Ages, however, witnessed a sharp narrowing of the definition. First to be excluded were those poorer elements who used their trading privileges to “color” strangers’ goods under the aegis of their own membership in the borough. Ousted next were the craftsmen, including middlemen and entrepreneurs. Finally the line was drawn between the merchant retailer and the mere merchant.[76]

The development of commercial organization in Bristol followed this pattern closely. In the fourteenth century it had been textile manufacturers, such as Thomas Blanket and William Canynges the Elder, who were Bristol’s leading men. But after the mid-fifteenth century, the history of the merchant community was marked by an accelerating process of exclusion, as a class of merchant dealers who specialized in overseas trade began to differentiate themselves from these industrial entrepreneurs. As late as 1467, however, no challenge was offered to the claims of all Bristol freemen to trade overseas on their own behalf. But in 1500, when Bristol was still a major cloth exporter, this new group of merchant adventurers, as they then began to call themselves, attempted to exclude the city’s clothiers from foreign commerce by prohibiting their fellows from delivering cloth abroad for nonmembers and by permitting mariners to ship no more than three whole cloths in their own name.[77] Nevertheless, at this time no distinction was made between mere merchants and merchant retailers. By the mid-sixteenth century, however, the focus was on the growing rivalry between large-scale wholesalers and prominent shopkeepers as well as clothiers and other manufacturers. Many merchants wished to exclude the latter groups from direct participation in foreign trade.

From the start these moves involved an intricate interplay of political choice and socioeconomic development. The establishment of new trading relations among merchants and between them and the rest of Bristol society led to the foundation of the Society of Merchant Venturers to provide common regulations and political protection for mere merchants. The Society, in turn, helped to crystallize the new trading practices and social and economic arrangements into a form of social organization for the city. It is hard to escape the sense that the increased rigidity of the occupational groupings we have observed in our study of social mobility and the growing differences in social background between the merchants and the rest of Bristol society were the consequence, perhaps only partially intended, of the development of the Merchant Venturers. The establishment of this company brought the mere merchants together in new ways, gave them common interests, and made it both easier and more desirable to form family alliances among the membership. As these overseas traders grew in wealth and power after 1552, they became a focus for gentry from Bristol’s hinterland who desired lucrative and influential positions for their younger sons, and for merchants from other cities who wanted to establish a foothold for themselves in this increasingly prosperous merchant community.

The evolution we have described did not occur in an economic vacuum. In large part it was the consequence of the growing complexity of trade and industry in the sixteenth century. Where once a single tradesman united in his own person the production and the distribution of goods, distinct categories of entrepreneur had emerged to perform these services. This process was accompanied by the development of what George Unwin has identified as “three different capital functions” which distinguished the dealer in foreign wares, the overseas trader, and the industrial entrepreneur, who competed with each other to “secure the economic advantage of standing between the rest and the market.”[78] In place of an economy in which every operating unit was a near-replica of every other, there came about a new economic order composed of specialized and interlocking elements. In it the merchant, with his command of credit, access to shipping, and connections in distant markets, was usually able to dominate both the producer and the retailer.

However, these developments were not uncontested. They arose because of the ability of Bristol’s mere merchants to control the city’s government and to use their influence with the Crown as extra-economic resources which in times of genuine economic crisis could be called on for assistance. But what sprang from politics could be countered by politics. Roger Edgeworth, preaching at the time of the Society’s foundation, saw it even at this early moment as a source of dissension in the city. Speaking of the need for unity in the body politic, he told Bristolians:

You haue in this citie erect a certain confederacie, which you call the companye, I pray God it may do well, but I perceiue a certaine mundanitie in it, a worldly couetouse caste to bring the gaines that was undifferent & common to al the marchaunts of this citie into the handes of a fewe persones. Wherefore good neyghbours, loue the whole brotherhed & vniuersal companie of Christes faithful people, diuide it not, & if there be any cantel broken out, pray for them that thei may returne and come home againe to the great flocke and congregation of Christian people, and that they may hereafter loue the whole fraternitie.[79]

What Edgeworth saw at the Society’s birth became the recurring motif of Bristol’s history in the decades to follow. To understand why this was so we need to see how these disagreements were transformed in ideology, which is the task of the next section of this book.


1. Raymond Firth, Elements of Social Organization: Josiah Mason Lectures Delivered at the University of Birmingham, 3d ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), pp. 30, 33. [BACK]

2. Peter M. Blau and W. Richard Scott, Formal Organizations: A Comparative Approach (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963), p. 2. [BACK]

3. Firth, Elements of Social Organization, pp. 36–40. [BACK]

4. Blau and Scott, Formal Organizations, p. 5. The classic definition of “formal organization” is to be found in Chester Barnard, The Function of the Executive (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1938), pp. 65–95. [BACK]

5. See Charles Gross, The Gild Merchant: A Contribution to British Municipal History, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1890), vol. 1, p. 49. [BACK]

6. Veale, ed., Great Red Book, vol. 16, pp. 82–84; Latimer, Merchant Venturers, pp. 16–18; McGrath, ed., Records, p. x; Patrick V. McGrath, The Merchant Venturers of Bristol: A History of the Society of Merchant Venturers of the City of Bristol from Its Origins to the Present Day (Bristol: Society of Merchant Venturers of Bristol, 1975), pp. 6, 8; Gross, Gild Merchant, vol. 1, pp. 45–46. The histories of previous organizations are associated primarily with the old Gild Merchant. A fraternity of merchants was founded in 1370 by one hundred and forty of the richest and most worthy townsmen, together with “plus ours aultres merchauntz et drapers,” for the purpose of regulating the sale of cloth in Bristol and of controlling dealings with strangers who frequented the town. But this was merely a reform of the Gild Merchant and, after 1372, when the gild’s right to admit freemen was successfully defended, there was no further reference to it. In the late Middle Ages, merchants were also organized through the Staple and its court in Bristol: LRB, vol. 2, pp. 51–55; Stella Kramer, The English Craft Gilds: Studies in Their Progress and Decline (New York: Columbia University Press, 1927), p. 29; Gross, Gild Merchant, vol. 2, pp. 353–55; Cronne, ed., Bristol Charters, 1378–1499, pp. 64–65; McGrath, ed., Records, p. ix n. 2. [BACK]

7. Veale, ed., Great Red Book, vol. 16, pp. 120–30; McGrath, Merchant Venturers of Bristol, p. 7. Nevertheless, the city’s leading merchants may have maintained some institutional association throughout the later fifteenth century. In 1493, thirteen of the most prominent of them joined together with thirteen mariners to build a new chapel in honor of St. Clement on what was later to be the site of the Merchants’ Hall and Almshouse. But it is by no means certain that the thirteen merchants were performing their charitable work on behalf of an existing gild or society. The years between 1467 and 1499 yield no solid evidence of the activities of any such company nor any record of the election of a master or other officers: LRB, vol. 2, pp. 186–92; Latimer, Merchant Venturers, pp. 19–21; McGrath, ed., Records, pp. x, xi, 66; McGrath, Merchant Venturers of Bristol, p. 6 and 6n. 20. [BACK]

8. Latimer, Merchant Venturers, pp. 26–35. For a discussion of the implications of the new city charter of 1499, see Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 1, pp. 45–101; Sacks, “The Corporate Town and the English State,” pp. 86–87; Latham, ed., Bristol Charters, 1509–1899, pp. 1–19. [BACK]

9. Latimer, Merchant Venturers, p. 26; Veale, ed., Great Red Book, vol. 8, pp. 57–60. [BACK]

10. Latimer, Merchant Venturers, p. 30. Many other clauses point in this same direction. For example, it was ordered that no merchant or other burgess of the city send any wine, wax, woad, iron, or other merchandise out of the city without being able to demonstrate that it had first been sold in open market or had been explicitly requested by a letter from an out-of-town customer; ibid., pp. 27–28. Rules were also laid down governing the treatment to be accorded all vessels arriving in Bristol laden with wine, wax, iron, woad, cochineal, oil, or any other merchandise shipped by strangers. Bristolians were forbidden to receive these goods and store them for their owners without the consent of the assembled fellowship: Gross, Gild Merchant, vol. 1, pp. 48–50. [BACK]

11. Latimer, Merchant Venturers, pp. 32–33. [BACK]

12. Ibid., pp. 32–33. [BACK]

13. Ibid., p. 27. [BACK]

14. Ibid., p. 35. The intent was to avoid time-consuming and socially disruptive suits. [BACK]

15. Ibid., pp. 21–22; BRO, Old Ordinance Book, esp. ff. 2r–3v. [BACK]

16. Carr, ed., Select Charters of the Trading Companies, pp. 1–3; Connell-Smith, Forerunners of Drake, pp. 67, 70, 76, 81–82, 90–97; Pauline Croft, ed., The Spanish Company (London Record Society 9, 1973), p. viii. [BACK]

17. Connell-Smith, Forerunners of Drake, pp. 82, 89. [BACK]

18. Connell-Smith, Forerunners of Drake, pp. 94–97; Croft, ed., Spanish Company, p. viii. [BACK]

19. Chaunu, Séville et l’Atlantique, vol. 8, part 2, section 1, pp. 244–47, 273, 298. [BACK]

20. Ibid., vol. 8, part 2, section 1, pp. 248–49, 299; Connell-Smith, “English Merchants Trading to the New World,” pp. 53–67; Connell-Smith, Forerunners of Drake, pp. 70–75. [BACK]

21. Chaunu, Séville et l’Atlantique, vol. 8, part 2, section 1, p. 307; Hamilton, American Treasure, pp. 189, 198. [BACK]

22. Hamilton, American Treasure, pp. 321, 340–41. [BACK]

23. Ibid., p. 261. [BACK]

24. See Gould, Great Debasement, pp. 81–86, 94, 96, 133ff.; C. E. Challis, The Tudor Coinage (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1978), pp. 81–134, 223–31; C. E. Challis, “The Circulating Medium and the Movement of Prices in Mid-Tudor England,” in Peter Ramsey, ed., The Price Revolution in Sixteenth Century England (London: Methuen, 1971), pp. 117–33, 134–35, 139, 146; C. E. Challis, “Currency and the Economy in Mid-Tudor England,” EcHR, 2d ser., 25 (1972): 313–22; Albert Feaveryear, The Pound Sterling: A History of English Money, 2d ed., rev. E. Victor Morgan (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), pp. 64–69; Y. Brenner, “The Inflation of Prices in Early Sixteenth-Century England,” in Ramsey, ed., Price Revolution, p. 78; de Roover, Gresham on Foreign Exchange, pp. 49–60; Fisher, “Commercial Trends and Policy in Sixteenth Century England,” pp. 155–57; Stone, “State Control,” p. 106; Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 2, pp. 583–85. [BACK]

25. De Roover, Gresham on Foreign Exchange, pp. 57–58; Gould, Great Debasement, pp. 85, 90, 91–93; Stone, “State Control,” p. 106. [BACK]

26. Stone, “State Control,” p. 106. [BACK]

27. Unfortunately, the absence of local trade statistics for 1551 and 1552 makes it impossible to know the exact course of events there. By 1553–54, however, Bristol’s cloth exports were 18.1 percent below the average figure for 1549–1551, a decline that continued at a precipitous rate until the end of the decade: Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 2, pp. 583, 902n. 39. [BACK]

28. When the Bristol Corporation struck its deal with Sadler, it apparently was concerned to maintain the charitable functions associated with the chapel, particularly the care of poor seamen. But this act canceled the authority of the thirteen merchants and the thirteen mariner feoffees who had previously held the property. Among the first recorded acts of the newly founded Society of Merchant Venturers was its effort to recover the property directly from Sadler. In October 1553 the property passed by deed to Edward Pryn, one of the founders of the Society and at the time its first master. Pryn appears to have been acting in a private capacity and not as the Society’s agent. He later resold it to the Society. But by 1561 the Merchants’ Almshouse, called St. Clement’s Almshouse, was already on the site, which suggests that the Society’s association with Pryn’s purchase of the property was close and that it had been in possession, if not ownership, for some time; LRB, vol. 2, pp. 186–92; Latimer, Merchant Venturers, pp. 18–21; McGrath, ed., Records, pp. 66, 96; SMV, Merchants Records, Box 5, Bundle A2; William Barrett, The History and Antiquities of the City of Bristol; Compiled from Original Records and Authentic Manuscripts in the Public Record Office or Private Hands Illustrated with Copper-Plate Prints (Bristol: W. Pine, 1789), p. 180; Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 2, pp. 903–4nn. 51–52. [BACK]

29. Edgeworth, Sermons, f. 43v. At the time this collection was printed, Edgeworth was canon of the cathedral churches of Salisbury, Wells, and Bristol, and resident at Wells, where he was also chancellor. The sermon from which this quote comes was part of a series on the “Seven Gifts of the Holy Ghost” preached at St. Mary, Redcliffe, sometime during the years 1544–47. [BACK]

30. See also below, pp. 125–26. [BACK]

31. Latimer, Merchant Venturers, p. 42. [BACK]

32. Ibid., pp. 42–43. [BACK]

33. Ibid., p. 43. [BACK]

34. Ibid., p. 44. [BACK]

35. Ibid., pp. 44–45. [BACK]

36. Ibid., p. 45. [BACK]

37. See above, p. 61. The Bristol merchants were not alone in this period in seeking to exclude retailers and artisans from overseas trade; see, e.g., W. E. Lingelbach, The Merchant Adventurers of England: Their Laws and Ordinances, with Other Documents (Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History, Department of History, University of Pennsylvania, 2d ser., vol. 2, 1902), pp. 111–16; Burgon, Life and Times of Sir Thomas Gresham, vol. 1, p. 464; Woodward, Trade of Elizabethan Chester, p. 74; W. Cotton, An Elizabethan Guild of the City of Exeter (Exeter: W. Pollard, 1873), pp. 6, 15–16; MacCaffrey, Exeter, 1540–1640, p. 137. [BACK]

38. See above, pp. 62–66. [BACK]

39. APC (1550–52), p. 485. [BACK]

40. See D. Hollis, ed., Calendar of the Bristol Apprentice Book, 1532–1565. Part 1: 1532–1542 (BRS 14, 1949); Elizabeth Ralph and Nora M. Hardwick, eds., Calendar of the Bristol Apprentice Book, 1532–1565. Part 2: 1542–1552 (BRS 33, 1980); BRO, Apprenticeship Book, 1552–1565. [BACK]

41. F. F. Fox, Some Account of the Ancient Fraternity of Merchant Taylors of Bristol, with Transcripts of Ordinances and Other Documents (Bristol: J. Wright, 1880), pp. 40–54, 68; Veale, ed., Great Red Book, vol. 16, pp. 64–69; Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 1, pp. 132–33. [BACK]

42. Fox and Taylor, eds., Guild of Weavers, pp. 91–92. [BACK]

43. Latimer, Merchant Venturers, pp. 68, 71–75, 79–80; Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 2, pp. 631–33. [BACK]

44. Patrick V. McGrath, “The Society of Merchant Venturers and the Port of Bristol,” BGAS 72 (1953): 105–28; McGrath, ed., Records, pp. xli, 135–75; McGrath, Merchant Venturers of Bristol, pp. 70–77. [BACK]

45. McGrath, ed., Records, pp. 176–98. [BACK]

46. Ibid., pp. 96–116. [BACK]

47. McGrath, ed., Records, p. xxxvii. [BACK]

48. SMV, Book of Trade, p. 119. [BACK]

49. From 1552 to 1639 the Society acquired three such patents from the Crown: Latimer, Merchant Venturers, pp. 39–47, 88–97. [BACK]

50. See Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 2, pp. 634ff. [BACK]

51. SMV, Book of Trade, pp. 67–68, 95–96. In a pattern typical of state concessions, the patent belonged to Richard Williams and David Lewis, who assigned a portion of it to William Harbett and Thomas Morgan. Harbett then made independent arrangements for shipping the butter with Henley and Henley with the Bristolians. [BACK]

52. Ibid., pp. 170–75, 237–38. [BACK]

53. SMV, Book of Trade, pp. 104ff. [BACK]

54. McGrath, ed., Records, pp. 110, 111–12. [BACK]

55. Ibid., p. 112. [BACK]

56. BRO, Common Council Proceedings, vol. 2, f. 96r; see also Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 2, p. 918n. 67. [BACK]

57. SMV, Book of Trade, p. 123; see also Preston, “Fishing and Plantation,” pp. 29–43. [BACK]

58. SMV, Book of Trade, p. 111; McGrath, ed., Records, pp. 207ff. [BACK]

59. PRO, SP 15/22/19; Marchants Avizo, pp. 10, 11; Latimer, Merchant Venturers, p. 77; Malynes, Lex Mercatoria, pp. 81–86; Willan, Elizabethan Foreign Trade, pp. 3–4; Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 2, pp. 546–50. [BACK]

60. Cf. A Relation, Or Rather a True Account, of the Island of England; with Sundry Particulars of the Customs of these People and of the Royal Revenues under King Henry the Seventh, about the Year 1500, ed. and trans. C. A. Sneyd (Camden Society 37, 1847), pp. 24–25; Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500–1800 (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), pp. 106–8. [BACK]

61. The sources for this study are Hollis, ed., Bristol Apprentice Book, part 1, and BRO, Apprenticeship Book, 1626–1636, ff. 1–333. Although ordinarily each apprenticeship enrollment identifies the trade of the apprentice’s father and that of his master, such occupational classifications did not exclude an individual from engaging in other kinds of work from time to time. Where there was no gild to enforce the boundaries between trades, or where large investments in tools or capital equipment were not necessary, it was possible to move from trade to trade. Some small shopkeepers, for example, maintained fairly diversified stocks that would qualify them for inclusion in more than one category. For example, William Adams, Bristol’s seventeenth-century chronicler, was identified during his lifetime as a haberdasher, an ironmonger, and a mercer. Occasionally individuals are listed as having multiple occupations, such as Thomas Howell “hooper ac bruer” or Richard Browne “haberdasher atque wierdrawer”: BRO, Mayor’s Audit (1600–1601), p. 138; BRO, MS 09467 (13a); Hollis, ed., Bristol Apprentice Book, part 1, pp. 115, 125, 195; Willan, Inland Trade, pp. 61ff. But since in general an occupational identification in the indentures gives the central focus of an individual’s economic activities, we can safely use it for our present purpose. [BACK]

62. See above, pp. 57–59 and Table 8; Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 1, pp. 205, and vol. 2, p. 760. [BACK]

63. Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 2, pp. 480–81, 663. [BACK]

64. Ibid., pp. 478–79, 496, 505, 506, 759–60. Note that the cappers of 1532–1542 had disappeared as an occupational category by 1626; their craft had broken up into haberdashers, on the retail side, and feltmakers, on the production side. Feltmaking appears to have been a growth industry in Bristol in the early seventeenth century. [BACK]

65. Sacks, Trade, Society, and Politics, vol. 2, pp. 479–80, 506–7, 760–61. [BACK]

66. See below, pp. 147–53; Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 2, pp. 487–88. [BACK]

67. The actual figures for Bristolians apprenticed in the same occupation as their fathers are: 1532–1542, 23.94 percent; 1626–1636, 34.79 percent. The figures for those apprenticed in the same industry but not the same occupation are: 1532–1542, 18.94 percent; 1626–1636, 14.12 percent. Together, these two sets of figures total: 1532–1542, 42.23 percent and 1626–1636, 48.91 percent. See Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 2, pp. 670–72. [BACK]

68. The consequences of these methodological difficulties for the overall picture of social mobility are small. Even if we move everyone in a “borderline” craft, such as whitawing, into the category of “leading entrepreneur,” the opportunities for social advancement would still appear greater in the early sixteenth than in the early seventeenth century. The more restricted definition we have employed in determining the composition of this category is better suited to our present purposes, however, since it results in something of an overestimation, rather than an underestimation, of mobility in Bristol. If those manufacturers who relied on heavy capital investment or produced for the national market were all included with the merchants, major retailers, and soapmakers, the apprenticeship of their sons to leading entrepreneurs would be counted in favor of heightened exclusivity, not increased openness. [BACK]

69. For further discussion of this evidence see Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 2, pp. 672–79. [BACK]

70. BRO, Burgess Book, 1607–1651, passim; see also Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 2, pp. 706–8. [BACK]

71. See Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 2, p. 759. [BACK]

72. See above, p. 60. [BACK]

73. For the general history of consumer industries and retailing see Willan, Inland Trade, pp. 50–106; Joan Thirsk, Economic Policy and Projects: The Development of a Consumer Society in Early Modern England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978). [BACK]

74. See Sacks, Trade, Society and Politics, vol. 2, p. 495. The other groups were food producers and woodworkers. [BACK]

75. Gross, Gild Merchant, vol. 1, p. 157. [BACK]

76. Ibid., p. 10, and vol. 2, pp. 24–27, 353–55; Latimer, Merchant Venturers, pp. 1–7. [BACK]

77. Latimer, Merchant Venturers, pp. 30, 33. [BACK]

78. George Unwin, Industrial Organization in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, 2d ed. with intro. by T. H. Ashton (London: Frank Cass, 1963), pp. 73, 96. [BACK]

79. Edgeworth, Sermons, ff. 210v, 211r–v. [BACK]

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